Book Review: Awake in the Night Land by John C. Wright

If you've been reading sci-fi and fantasy for a long time, eventually you will find that most books in the genre tend to follow predictable, straightforward patterns. For instance, with typical left-wing far-future sci-fi, one standard trope that is quite often seen goes along the lines of:
Impossibly brave, impossibly romanticised, impossibly witty hero with balls of steel (and a horse's cock), yet tragically flawed, sets off in search of <insert MacGuffin plot device here> to save <insert name of impossibly beautiful and chaste, yet also extremely horny, female protagonist here> from the clutches of the evil <insert generic villain/demonic force/nasty future cataclysm here>.
About the only innovation that might be introduced is that the hero might turn out to be a heroine forced to make an impossible choice between two equally attractive and highly unrealistic paramours while confronting some sort of galaxy-spanning evil.

Like I said, it gets really boring after a while.

It is quite something, then, when you encounter a book that not only does not follow the expected course of the genre, but provides such mind-bending entertainment, and operates on such a superb level, that you find yourself gaping in stupefied awe at the level of intelligence required to manufacture the plot, the ideas, and the characters.

If this sort of thing is of interest to you, then I strongly recommend that you give John C. Wright's collection of four short stories- novellas, really- a try.

Awake in the Night Land is without question a work of genius. Remarkably, these novellas are not actually original creations, in the strictest sense. They are actually homages to, and extensions of, the work of a writer whose name is quite obscure- William Hope Hodgson. In 1912, Hodgson published a work called The Night Land, which was simultaneously one of the best and most frustrating books ever released in the horror genre. It is an extremely dense and very long book, written in an almost impenetrable style of archaic English, with no dialogue whatsoever; and despite being written entirely in the first person, the protagonist is never once named. Indeed, it is precisely because the book is so difficult to read that Hodgson's name is not more well-known; his contemporaries, who included perhaps the greatest horror writer of all time, H. P. Lovecraft himself, thought Hodgson was an unsurpassed talent.

The world of The Night Land is Earth, millions of years into the future, after some great (probably man-made) catastrophe has loosed damnation upon the world in the form of brooding, cyclopean horrors that dwell in the eternal twilight and darkness of a dying sun. The last remaining dregs of Mankind dwell inside a gigantic, 8-mile-high pyramid of metal, protected by a quasi-mystical field called the Earth Current. Beyond the Last Redoubt dwell towering horrors that crawl closer every year by fractions of an inch; and in the Night Land itself live ghastly creatures that seem to come from the very depths of Hell itself.

John C. Wright proceeded to insert himself into this world, in order to write four stories set in this post-apocalyptic gloom, as a homage to the writer that he reveres. The first story, "Awake in the Night", concerns the dreams of a young man of his closest childhood friend in terrible pain and distress within the Night Land; seeking to retrieve his friend's soul, he sets out across the Night Land to find his friend and bring his soul back to the shelter of the Last Redoubt. It is a tale of the bonds of lifelong friendship, and the tests that those bonds must face when confronted with the living horrors of a world in which Mankind barely survives. It is, without question, a brilliant tribute to the love story that was the original book, The Night Land.

The second story, "The Cry of the Night Hound", is perhaps the finest story in the collection. It is certainly the one that stood out the most strongly to me. It concerns the tale of a young woman whose brother somehow manages to befriend two of the monstrous Night Hounds that roam the Night Land- imagine, if you can, a dog, a horse, a great white shark, and a scorpion all stuck into a genetic blender, and you will have some idea of what a Night Hound looks like. Her brother falls in the Night Land, just a few dozen miles from the Last Redoubt. His sister, forbidden from leaving the Last Redoubt because she is a woman, nonetheless defies the orders of her superiors and ventures out into the Night Land, alone, to retrieve her brother's body. She succeeds, but in so doing, she nearly sows the seeds of Mankind's destruction- for the Night Hounds have their own agenda. The scene in which the plot of the Night Hounds is confronted and destroyed is still seared into my memory, such is the brilliance of this story. It doesn't end there, either- read it and you'll find out just how good this story is.

The third story, "Silence of the Night", is not nearly as memorable, mostly because it concerns the time closest to the Fall of the Last Redoubt and Mankind's final extinction. Somehow it just didn't grab me, and it took me a while to get through it even though this third story is, from my recollection, the shortest of the three stories in this book.

The fourth story, "The Last of All Suns", is simultaneously so mind-bending and so obtuse that you have to read it a couple of times just to try to figure out what the hell is going on. I certainly couldn't when I read it. Essentially, it takes place trillions of years in the future, long after the extinction of Mankind, close to the extinction of the entire Universe. The last souls of all species in the Universe are crammed into a galley of horrors, the Last Ship, which slowly circles the collapsing centre of the Universe. The last surviving spirits of Man, ranging from all epochs of Mankind's existence, are preyed upon by horrors too numerous and terrible to understand. You find yourself looking through the protagonist's eyes as he stumbles through a dream of his wife on an African plain, and you really do find yourself wondering: was it truly all a dream after all? When I finished reading that last story, I honestly could not tell if there was a separation between dream and fictional reality within that story- such is the power and skill of Mr. Wright's prose.

I suppose at this point I should address one issue that I have seen on another review of Mr. Wright's work. Matt Forney read the first story, "Awake in the Night", and... well, he was less than impressed. In fact, he absolutely savaged the story in his review; his criticisms concerned the language and prose used in the book, but then descended into some rather snarky insults which I thought were thoroughly unnecessary. I respect Matt's writing and opinion, but I think that on this one, he could not possibly be more wrong. Matt's rudeness about Mr. Wright's writing and terminology simply tell me that he didn't even try to understand the story, or show any interest whatsoever in the source material. Indeed, it becomes very apparent that the moment Matt encountered some odd terminology or difficult writing, he simply gave up on the entire thing and stopped reading.

With this set of stories, that is a guaranteed way to deprive yourself of some very entertaining and thoroughly exceptional writing. Besides, it's actually no more challenging to read than Shakespearian prose, or Paradise Lost. (It took me 6 months to read the latter. I didn't say it was easy.)

In order to understand why this is so, you have to understand that Mr. Wright was attempting to do something nearly impossible. He was trying to take a rich, yet dense and almost impenetrable universe created by another author who has been dead for over a century, and adapt his own ideas to fit into that universe. You have to read some of the original book to understand just how dense Hodgson's prose was; compared to the original, Mr. Wright's prose is downright plebian, yet compared to everyday speech, it is stilted, formal, and difficult.

This is a collection of short stories that rewards persistence. It is not a fast read, and nor should it be. These stories are works of a genius at the peak of his powers. Difficult as they might be to understand and digest, I strongly recommend that you give them a try; your persistence will be richly rewarded, for Mr. Wright is a writer of surpassing brilliance and skill.

Didact's Verdict: 4.5/5, some weird and impenetrable moments notwithstanding, this is an amazing collection of astonishing talent. If you liked H. P. Lovecraft- specifically, "The Call of Cthulhu" and "The Shadow Out of Time"- then you're going to love this.

Buy/download Awake in the Night Land here.

Comments

  1. Much easier to read than Shakespeare or Milton.

    ReplyDelete

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